Ethics got the better of me

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by stuart_todd, Nov 14, 2003.

  1. This is something that happened to me two days ago, and something I’d
    like to share and get feedback from.

    With the end of the university year approaching all to fast, I was
    out wandering the big city streets trying vainly to stock up my end
    of year portfolio with some more boring cityscapes and hopefully some
    interesting architectural work. On a known shortcut between the main
    street and the technology corridor, I came across the killer
    photograph. I was on a now an empty, disused street between the city
    mission and an old retro fitted insurance building, there in between
    two building supports for the city mission there was a homeless man
    and his dog. Both where curled up in foetal like position and fast
    asleep. The man’s embrace of the dog was like that of an infant and
    it’s most precious and favourite possession. I stopped and looked
    down for a brief second and all at once the left brain side screamed
    with images and concepts from the history of photography and for some
    bizarre reason name Magnum started flashing somewhere behind the
    retina. So the next reaction was obvious, f8 @ 125th. Then in the
    time it took to flick my cigarette* into the gutter and reach for the
    first gadget bag buckle the right side of the brain whispered to
    me, “he isn’t aware”. Drumming my index and middle fingers on the
    plastic buckle I muttered to myself a certain F word and stated “boy
    do I _love_ ethics”. Did a 180 and headed for the nearest Starbucks
    to imagine the lecturer who gave the ethics speech to the class
    drowning in my coffee.

    Stu :)

    *Yes I know smoking is disgusting and I’m ‘spose to be a student and
    how can I afford them, blah blah…
  2. Cool. Ethics are a pain in the ass.

    What *is* it with photographers and poor people though? I really don't get it.
  3. wasn't it Alexi Broadovitch (teacher to Winogrand , Arbus, Avedon, Hiro, Maisel, etc.)
    who said " if you look through the view finder and see a picture you have seen before,
    don't take the picture."?

    So maybe it was wisdom (or boredom) that spoke to you.

    Or maybe it was compassion?
  4. sometimes, seeing is enough
  5. I think you did the right thing. Like the other guy said, "sometimes
    seeing is enough". Some times when I have my camera out, I have to
    stop myself w/ some shots because viewing the shot with my eyes feels
    more right than trying to capture it, often ethics is the reason.
  6. <p>I honestly think that by photographing *poor* people, or transients, or homeless, or less fortunate people, we are somehow oozing out the sympathy and compassion juices. Maybe its not the photographer him/her self, but rather the acceptance of the American public for these kinds of photos. I like to put myself in the shoes of the homeless person, and think of how I would feel with a camera pointed at me because I am in the lousy position I am unfortunately in.
    <p>I think you did the right thing by walking away.
  7. ... I think the homeless are just easy targets. We see them on the street, they're out in the open. They are unaware of the rumors that they have rights (which they don't if they're out in the open) and they're hopes is that you take their picture, you give them a dollar so they can buy whatever they need. Generally beer and ether.

    Having had been homeless (don't be fooled. nobody begs for food) I am disguisted by these photos of poor people. I find them exploitive and often times boring. They are instant art. Everyone loves them, they like to think "how could he live like that?" and "i'm so fortunate!" ... It's all BS.

    Honestly, I seriously doubt this would have been the perfect shot. Just an easily accessed one. Like Jewel strumming on her guitar: it looks like art, it smells like art, it sounds like art ... it's pretty mediocre.
  8. I've been there and done that and am not sorry. This is after not doing that and being sorry. You learn photographic ethics through experience, which is to say you make mistakes after which you feel pretty lousy about yourself.

    The homeless, disabled people, yawning people, people caught in embarrassing predicaments are all easy targets. Seeing is enough, or more than enough.

    I think Stuart did the right thing. The description he wrote here is touching enough and may well be worth the passed up photograph.

    Lewis Carrol (of Alice in Wonderland fame) loved to photograph naked little girls. He not only did this only with the parents concent (naturally) but would not take the photograph if the little girl showed even the slightest hesitation. That is why, I guess, parents had no fears of putting their little girls in the care of this truly nice man. He was also a good photograph.

    Stuart, if this can make you feel better, consider brain filing the image you saw but did not photograph. Something like and better will come along.
  9. That homeless guy exists in your world. Is photographing someone like that a bad thing? I mean really, of course it's exploitive, but should you care? IT'S YOUR WORLD!!! and you have a right to photograph it. Once you raise that camera all contained within becomes your property.

    A photo is not the pencil of nature. It's an artificial creation that the photographer is completely responsible for. The photo represents YOU and not what was infront of the camera at the time you pressed that button.

    Like it or not, objectification is what we do. We make things our own, we change them into two dimensional interpretations of how we see. Photography is a medium meaning that it gets in the middle, it's how we translate our world so that others can see it just like the way that painters use paint or writers use words. If you read a poem about a homeless guy on the street would you think that the poet was unethical?

    That said, it's not an easy problem but magazines print plenty of photos of suffering people all the time. There is quite a bit of suffering all around us, from famine to traffic accidents, from genocide to the agony of defeat. Seeing this anguish in photos seems to remind us that we are all cut of the same cloth in some way. It's real and unreal all at the same time. We gaze at ourselves in photos and paintings and poetry in some way.

    Well, after all that... if you feel uncomfortable just walk away. The world keeps spinning. You have to trust that there will be plenty of more photos in your future so kick back, light a fag and relax.
  10. Could it be fear that got to you?<P>I checked out from our library, the book titled:<P>"Margaret Bourke White, Her Pictures Were Her Life."<P>Take a look and see how she presented humanity for all to see. Sometimes it isn't pretty. Yet she kept going on, telling the world about the struggles, reporting the human condition of people from all over the world.<P>Playrights are good at creating stories about the plight of humans. History is full of them.<P>Music is created by people who do the same.<P>But a lot of positive things happen and to a lot of people on this earth. I'm fortunate and blessed to belong to this group.<P>Then when I'm exposed as to how others less fortunate live I'm shocked and I sometimes get depressed. I believe it's important to sometimes create images to remind us, who live the so-called "good" life how others have it.<P>Then when you get upset for, what turns out to be somthing small, like waiting in traffic during rush hour, we can be more patient and apprecative of our life. <P>The old saying I'm remind of, "Don't sweat the small stuff. It's all small stuff."<P>Have a nice journey with your formal education!
  11. i don't get it. why do people assume poor or homeless people are
    always unethical to photograph? poor people are not all the same just
    like people that have a home and money. some are happy, some not.
    some are dignify, some not. i talked to many of them and photograph
    them just like *regular people.* i think it is a shame you
    automatically assume it would be exploitive. you obviously don't
    think twice about getting that cup of latte or expresso in starbuck
    which some agrue is utterly exploitive of coffee bean farmers in
    central america. salgado uses leicas to shoot poor people, do we
    think he is exploitive and unethical? yes? no? perhaps? nevertheless
    it is ultimately unethical to ASSUME poor people are any different
    than other people. futhermore, many of the most dignifying people i
    know are often poor. tripping the shutter or not is your choice but
    don't assume you are more ethical than poor people or photographers
    that do click the shutter. as far as another boring homeless
    photo...i bet there are way more boring sunset photos or way more
    hyper gloss meaningless ad out there. go to your nearest barnes and
    noble and see for yourself.
  12. I wouldn't label it an ethics problem, frankly. Not in the context of acts that really hurt people for self gratification. And there are plenty of those happening in society. Give yourself a break.
  13. I beleive that taking pictures of misery is often the public voice for the people involved. If you take a picture of a homeless man you're taking a stand and you are fighting for his cause by denoncing the social injustice. This is essential philantropic work!

  14. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    I don't this is an ethics problem. I don't think it's a philosophical problem. I think it's a photographer problem.
    There's nothing wrong with photographing poor people or the homeless. There is a problem when someone shows me their "street" photography and it's third world children who offered their face for money or homeless people on the street.
    These photos are about people who can't photograph a stranger who might stand up to them, or a scene that might have some complicated emotion (instead of just pathos, for example), or a scene that requires them to engage.
    It's not that difficult to get invited into the homes of people who are poor if you're not just treating them like a photographic object, and it's not that difficult to find scenes that do show some of the issues around homelessness.
    I find that a lot of the photographs I see here of the homeless fit what I call "chickenshit photography," for lack of a better term.
  15. "... tripping the shutter or not is your choice but don't assume you are more ethical than poor people or photographers that do click the shutter. as far as another boring homeless photo...i bet there are way more boring sunset photos or way more hyper gloss meaningless ad out there. go to your nearest barnes and noble and see for yourself."
    Note: This is not a stab at you for your comment! I am only using it to make another point.
    This is exactly what I was talking about in my earlier post. If the people of America, and maybe other countries as well, did not have the appetite for this type of "art", then it wouldnt be in Barnes and Nobles. Its just like violence on tv.
    As far as nature shots, its not necessary to ask the sun for permission to photograph it.
    Another point; could you take a picture of some prominent business man, or ANY of the thousands that are walking around the streets of our cities, WITH that person knowing you took their picture, and without asking their permission, and offer them nothing? No compensation? No fear of liable or some other legal action?
    The homeless or other of the "less fortunate" may not, and likely do not, have the means or opportunity to take any action against you. And, they may not even care that you sneaked a shot of them. But, and I may be wrong, correct me if I am, I was under the impression that this was legally wrong. Even if its not, personally, I feel its taking advantage of someone who's position has been compromised. Come shove a camera in my face, and you will get a real fast macro view of a 9mm barrel. However, if permission was asked and given, then it is a totally different matter.
    Taking the advantage is often necessary in photography, but, not to this degree.
    And all of this is said assuming that the photo in question would have been without permission.
  16. Let me tell you why I hesitate to photograph homeless people, and generally do not. Homeless people do not like to be photographed. They don't like being turned into art while they are suffering.

    Look, I lived through the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995. There were a lot of moments when I did not press the shutter release because I did not want to show any kind of disrespect to people who had lost their homes. And at the time we had no water in our apartment and I was as grubby as anyone else for lack of a bath.

    I was in constant conflict because I wanted to document the aftermath of the earthquake and at the same time not emotionally hurt people any further.

    I got enough shots without knowingly offending any of the victims as far as I know. I still have no made my photos public.
  17. >>> This is exactly what I was talking about in my earlier post. If
    the people of America, and maybe other countries as well, did not have
    the appetite for this type of "art", then it wouldnt be in Barnes and
    Nobles. Its just like violence on tv. <<<

    it is not what they are selling, it is what YOU are creating that
    counts. as an artist (photographer, musician, painter or what have
    you), it is vital that you do your own thing and believe in it and
    forget what the viewers, critics and consumers dictates. politic
    should be democratic, art is about desire, obsession, urges, pursuit
    of your perfection nothing less. as if everyone is going digital. so
    what? i can careless. think robert frank, astor piazzolla,
    jean cocteau, atom egoyan, jean luc godard, third eye foundation
    etc... acourse this is *MY* intrepetation of what art should be.

    as for your question of taking street photos, i really don't
    have an answer. it all depends on the situation, the place, the
    photographer and his/her method. fyi: i ask permission at times,
    other times i just click and move on, and other times i engage them in
    a long conversation though i never ambush them or
    "shove my cam in their faces." anyone can take action against
    you...they can engage you in a verbal or physical battle. as an avid
    street photographer, i have no problem with being in front of other
    street shooters' lens though i wish i was more photogenic.

    there is no set method thus we have h-cb, frank, kerterz, davidson,
    arbus, klein, evans, brassai, gutmann, levitt, parr, weegee, webb

    happy shoo
  18. happy shooting that was.
  19. I don't see how taking a picture of a sleeping homeless man is any different from taking a picture of my sleeping daughter. The pictures are taken for the same reason, are they not? To convey a sense of infancy, of vulnerability, maybe. I don't see the differance between taking that picture of the man holding onto his dog, and taking a picture of my 31 year old brother who I know for a fact, still sucks his thumb when he sleeps. I believe that in the mind of a true photograoher the reason for taking the picture is the same. To capture whatever he felt looking at the scene. I think ethics would only really come into play if you intended to exploit the subject with the photograph. If you took that picture of the man and his dog and it became a national icon and led to sweeping changes in the way society and government view the homeless, you would owe it to your subject to give him credit. The same with my brother. If my photograph of him sucking his thumb lead to a national thumbsucking support group, and sweeping changes in the way society views thumbsuckers I would owe him that credit ( from a different country of course). I guess what I'm trying to say is that noone has a crystal ball, and if every time your finger went to the button you saw 50 different outcomes, you're never going to take that picture.

    Some might remember that picture of Phil's a few months back. A man and a woman outside a bar, kissing. Or looking deep into one anothers eyes..something like that. Anyway, what if that man ( or that woman) is cheating on their spouse at that moment. What if that person was destined to become a leader in the fight against cancer or AIDS or Hunger or corruption or all things Bennifer. But that photo of Phils shows up in an unmarked manilla envelope to that persons competitor or enemy, or spouse. Most likely they've just been ruined. Instead of curing cancer, they become a gopher to some executive Bush.

    My point is- we can not tell what the future holds, so A. We either stop taking pictures. (after all, your picture might encourage Animal welfare to find that man and take that "poor dog" away) Or B.we take the pictures that speak to us, and try not to worry about possible consequences. ( That picture could after all, prompt Petsmart CEO to donate a large amount of dog food to that areas homeless shelter.)
  20. Stuart, welcome to the company of educated folks, SO here's the deal 1),you know you wanted to make that shot 2) you still right now this second aren't sure what stopped you, 3)you truly regret you missed an opportunity to record something that spoke to you meaningfully, 4) you don't sound like an exploitive personality or a paparazzo with a hard on for sleazy intrusion. Boring,heck boredom would stop us from doing a lot of things. How about a chip in cameras: LED lights up, "this shot has been done ad nauseum,shutter locked" (just kidding) Conclusion,for the time being based on the comments: I would have shot that maybe not so uninteresting duo and then later ruminated on whether to save it or press the delete button on my digital card writer..(.Life is really simple sometimes out of academia). Now if we got out that old-remember anyone-? thread about "Photographing the Amish," the wicket gets stickier...Ah but that POP re ethics and sensibilities thread is in another location,ladies and germs. Be well and keep up your fibre intake.Your photofriend in paradise, Gerry
  21. If you think about it carefully you may not have shot the picture for a variety of reasons....if ethics alone stop you from shooting you have yet more thinking to do.
    I think it is ok to shoot anything you like....the way in which you decide to present the shot is where ethics come into it.
    Before self publication on the web, the only way to get your work seen by others was to have it published in print.
    Which meant getting it approved by editors etc.
    Or a personal exhibition, where anything goes, and always has, assuming you can organise a venue.

    So why do you shoot ? Is it that important to show off your photography that you need to consider ethics/what others will think, for each and every frame ?
    I think it is best to shoot first, and think about everything else later.
  22. Also, it may not have been your photo to shoot.
    Recognising a good subject does not mean you HAVE to shoot it.
  23. If you had recognized the person as Elizabeth Taylor or Elvis Presley, would you have nailed the shot?
  24. I would have taken the photograph - and indeed once did take such a picture. The picture may not be original in the broadest sense, but it would have been original to you. It is not exploitative. Not taking the photograph will not improve the subject's fortunes. Taking it might just have done so. And finally it is a comment, albeit just one more quiet comment among thousands, about the state of our society in this twenty-first century.

    Have the camera ready at all times - don't think, photograph. Finally, you don't have to print it if you have second thoughts, but if you don't, then you have the negative.
  25. I think the situation as it was described in the original post raised a conflict around shooting without permission; the whole debate about exploitation of the homeless is a red herring.
    I have been photographing a community in DC for many years and some of the subjects are long-term homeless. I have photographed them *with* permission dozens and dozens of times. There are also non-homeless characters I have photographed dozens of times. In that context, if I was in an alley and saw one of my people curled up with a dog and knew that he has always allowed me to do my thing, would there be a conflict?

    I think I would have passed on the photo in the situation you described. Sleeping in the alley, as opposed to sleeping on a public bench, communicates to me an expectation of (or at least a request for) privacy, to the degree privacy would be possible for a homeless fellow.

    A while ago, I came across one of my frequent subjects standing in the middle of Connecticut Avenue playing the clarinet. I didn't ask permission and took a photo. In that circumstance, you could hardly make the case that he was manifesting a desire for privacy. In public, it's all fair game. Though technically an alley is public land, the reality is that he is manifesting desire for all the privacy he can muster.
  26. I have to second what Ward said. . . .a great point made here!
  27. Hmm.If our 'code of conduct' for street photographers means consent in every situation, we would have no sailor kissing nurse on V-E Day. No photo of Parisian crying at the German occupation. Could be we are getting just a little squirmy and better stick to rhododendrons.. OTOH I have never had a 38 pointed at me as some photojournalists have.
  28. I think Ward has made a very good point. But at the same time, I do not think it would have been "wrong" to take the photo. From what you told, what made the photo was the holding of the dog. it wasnt a homeless man sleeping and using his shoes for a pillow. Perhaps the emotion someone would get from viewing a photo of a "filty man" holding a dog would show them that anyone truley is capable of love and/or just carrying about something.

    Comments were made that homeless people dont like beig photographed or are miserable. I think this is a stereotype, while of course it does hold true, you dont know if this person is miserable. There could be a doctor who hypothetically hates his life equally to/if not more then the homeless man [and if this said doctor was a dentist, he'd most likely be contemplating suicide [bad joke, sorry]].

    I think a more ethical situation would be if the subject infront of you was having a heart attack, giving birth, and you were the only person there and were taking pictures opposed to helping. During the world trade center attacks, there was a French film crew coincidentally doing a documentary on fire fighters the same day, and in interviews the only time they said they put down the camera is when people were running into the lobby of the WTO on fire.

    I first got a passion for photography in highschool and would often take my camera to the punk shows i went too. Growing up in a pretty violent underground musice scene, I have a handful of pictures of kids getting jumped, punched in the face with brass knuckles, kicked in the head with steel capped boots etc etc etc. I dont regret taking those photos because I feel it documents the music scene I grew up in very well.

    So while this post dosent give you an answer and is way too long, I would not have looked down on you for taking a picture of a homeless person and if you did take the picture and could sleep at night, then that is all that matters.

    still ill
  29. Elvis is dead. That would have been a *very* interesting picture.
  30. Dignity is what this ethics issue is first about, not shooting. Secondly, it is about having their permission.
  31. This thread reminds me of the writings of Sebastiao Saldago. No one has photographed the poor of the world more frequently or successfully than he. And he always shoots them with a sense of dignity. He talks of it being a free exchange. The photographs are given, never taken.

    With your homeless man sleeping with his dog, the political issues become paramount. You are the priveledged student with a camera (we are all priveledged to be discussing photography while most of the world is concerned with food) and he is the owner of little. You are in power, he is not. He is vulnerable and unaware. If you take that picture, you just add to the volume of stereotyped pitying work regarding the poor that already saturates the world. If you want something special, see if he will let you get to know him. Then you can take a picture of the man.
  32. i have more ethical problems with you flicking cigarette butts in the street, rather than you making/not making a photo of someone who is down and out. but hey, thats just my opinion and you probably dont really need it.
  33. Your question raises a dilemma - in attempting to ask permission to take the shot you often lose the expression/emotion/composition that drew you to the shot in the first place. By not asking permission you could be intruding on someone else's life.

    Some people have commented here that you should shoot first and ask questions later. That is all very well from the point of view of financial gain/notoriety of the shot were it to ever leave the darkroom, but really, that has nothing to do with the subject of the image. It seems to me that what is more important to you as a photographer and decent human being (and to me) is that you do not offend the person you raise the lens to in the first place.

    I think someone here has made the point, but I would like to make it again, that it depends on what else is going on at the time. The photography should come second to the outcome of the situation. An example springs to mind of a roll of film shot of a camel train stuck in a river. The photographer has documented a dramatic and (for one camel at least(!)) tragic event, but I feel that he has gone over the top. One or even a few images could convey what happened, yet he shot a whole roll. The expression on the face of one of the men says it all: 'put the camera down and lend a hand'.

    Of course, if he had offered to help and there was nothing to be done but to step aside, then by all means reach for the camera, but try to do it in as sensitive a manner as possible.

    I suppose that illustrates another point made here - respect for someone's privacy. As they have said, if someone is making an attempt to hide themselves away then you should respect that. You will probably know instinctively when you are intruding, and you should learn to listen to that voice.
  34. I'm inclined to believe that ethics comes into play, not so much in taking the picture, but in the choice of its audience. One can always choose later whether or not to destroy the negative, whether or not to show the picture.

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